The Pittsburgh Steelers are putting a nice double move on free agency -- they are signing players and preserving salary cap space. Deals for cornerback William Gay, safety Robert Golden, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green will cost $7.22 million against the cap in 2016. That’s not bad. Guard Ramon Foster's contract numbers -- reported at $9.6 million for three years, per NFL Network -- should push this week's signings to around $10 million against the cap.
The Steelers entered the week with around $12.6 million in space, according to ESPN's database, and they can always create more.
Still, five Steelers starters became free agents on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Re-signing one or more could require some maneuvering, though letting them walk wouldn't be crushing, either.
Here’s my assessment of their chances to return.
NT Steve McLendon -- 40 percent
On the surface, this seems like an easy deal. The Steelers’ current defensive tackles are Daniel McCullers and Caushaud Lyons. But the second-tier nose tackle market is relatively thin, so McLendon could get a satisfying deal elsewhere in the next few days. The Steelers have expressed interest in re-signing him. How much will they pay for someone they play less than half the defensive snaps? The Steelers like to use ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt together in pass-heavy sets, which in today’s NFL is more than half the time. McLendon believes he can rush the passer, too, so let’s see if both sides find common ground. This one is turning more complicated than I thought it would be.
LT Kelvin Beachum -- 35 percent
It's early, but this one seems trending toward a separation. Beachum declined the Steelers’ offer in the preseason, then got hurt in Week 7 and Alejandro Villanueva acquitted himself well in relief. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the Steelers recently explored a one-year deal for Beachum, the classic prove-it deal, but there’s not much momentum on that front right now. Beachum’s a talented player -- natural feet and hands -- so there’s a home for him somewhere. That somewhere won't be in Pittsburgh unless his market falls to them just right. The longer Beachum is on the market, the better his chances are to stay.
CB Antwon Blake -- 30 percent
Contrary to most Steelers fan assessments, Blake has had his moments. His pick-six in San Diego was huge. He was an aggressive tackler. He earned favor with coach Mike Tomlin. But at times Blake struggled in coverage. That showed late in the year. If the Steelers upgrade the secondary through the draft and use former second-rounder Senquez Golson in the slot, Blake’s tenure in Pittsburgh could end unless he’s available deep into the spring.
S Will Allen -- 10 percent
The Steelers asked Allen, at age 33, to start full-time in 2015. He filled the stat sheet with 80 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. But the sense I get is the Steelers know they need to upgrade this spot alongside Mike Mitchell. The draft will be helpful for this. Plus, they like Golden's versatility, who could see a larger role. Perhaps the Steelers bring him back late in the spring on the veteran minimum of $1-million plus. I just don’t see it.
H-back Will Johnson -- 50 percent
The Steelers have made an offer to Johnson, a part-time starter, but he’s testing the market. Perhaps Johsnon, with a bigger role elsewhere, can create a Roy Helu or Matt Asiata identity as a utility-man back. The Steelers won’t pay Johnson big money, but they like his range -- he can block as a tight end or out of the backfield, he can carry the ball and he’s good on special teams. There’s a decent chance he returns.